NASA faces budget cuts, a new designation for a "half-moon," a new record for the longest space residency, and the launch of an innovative environmental satellite. This Week In Space

NASA Layoffs: Budget Dispute Threatens Mars Mission Progress

A budgetary dispute in Congress, the legislative authority of the United States, regarding the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of the American space agency NASA  is currently resulting in the forced layoff of 530 employees, constituting about eight percent of its workforce. Additionally, the work of forty external contractors is expected to be halted. The layoffs are expected to disrupt the progress of the center's flagship project - planning the Mars sample return mission, which was intended to be carried out as a collaborative effort with the European Space Agency (ESA)

In a memo to employees this week, JPL Director Laurie Leshin explained that due to the lack of approval for the fiscal year 2024 budget and the absence of budget allocation for the Mars mission, “we are now in a position where we must take further significant action to reduce our spending, which will result in layoffs of JPL employees and an additional release of contractors.”

The Mars sample return mission was intended to extend the work of the Perseverance rover, which has been operational for three Earth years on the neighboring planet. The rover collected soil samples from various interesting locations, sealed them in metal containers, and placed the containers in several sites for collection in a future mission. This mission was to be equipped with a rover and a spacecraft capable of taking off from Mars, a feat never before achieved. However, in July 2023, the Senate Appropriations Committee refused to approve the mission's budget following an audit report that concluded  there was zero chance it would be ready for launch by the planned date in 2028. The report also highlighted that the likelihood of completing the mission without exceeding the budget was exceedingly slim.

Originally, $300 million was earmarked for the development of the sample collection mission in 2024, out of an estimated cost of at least eight billion dollars for the entire mission. This budget represents a significant decrease from the previous year's allocation, which already forced JPL to implement a series of efficiency measures. Now it became evident that these measures were insufficient and in order to avoid exceeding the budget for other activities, the center, operated in partnership with the California Institute of Technology, must further reduce its workforce significantly.

הרפתקה יקרה מדי? מרכיבים במשימת איסוף הדגימות ממאדים, שעתידה לא ברור כעת | מקור: NASA/JPL-Caltech
 Too costly an adventure? Components in the Mars Sample Return mission, with its future currently uncertain. | Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Move and... A New Moon

The International Astronomical Union, responsible for setting agreed names for celestial bodies, recently approved the peculiar name Zoozve for the "half-moon" of the planet Venus. This decision marked the end of a long and amusing tale that originated from a human error. The object is actually an asteroid with a diameter of approximately 240 meters, orbiting the Sun, but temporarily caught in Venus's orbit, and likely to break free from it in a few hundred years.

About a year ago, while putting his young son to bed, Latif Nasser noticed a peculiar name, Zoozve, on a poster of the solar system hanging above his son's bed. Nasser, one of the hosts of the popular science podcast Radiolab, knew that Venus has no moons and decided to delve into the origin of this illustration.

After thorough investigation, it turned out to be an object identified by astronomers in 2002, temporarily named 2002VE86 due to its proximity to Venus at that time. At some point, the illustrator mistakenly replaced the number 2 with the letters Z, omitted the suffix, and thus the name ZOOZVE was born. Intrigued by the discovery, Nasser and the podcast team embarked on a journey to formalize the accidentally given name for the asteroid. The full story was aired in an episode of Radiolab at the end of January. This week, as mentioned, their efforts bore fruit, and the half-moon of Venus is now officially designated as 524522 Zoozve. Congratulations!

אורח זמני. המסלול המשוער של זוזבה סביב כוכב הלכת נוגה משנת 1600 עד 2500 | הדמיה: Phoenix7777, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0
Temporary visitor. Zoozve's estimated orbit around the dwarf planet from 1600 to 2500 | Illustration: Phoenix7777, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

Record-Breaking Astronaut

Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko recently set a new record, becoming the person who has spent the most cumulative time in space. Kononenko, who is currently on his fifth mission at the International Space Station, has spent 879 days in space, surpassing the previous record set by his compatriot Gennady Padalka, who spent 878 days in Earth orbit. Kononenko's current mission is supposed to last a year, and if completed as planned, he will have accumulated 1,100 days in space, a little more than three years of his life. Aged 59, Kononenko is an aeronautical engineer who was raised in Turkmenistan and joined the Russian space program as a cosmonaut in 1996. He made his first journey to space in 2008 and has conducted six spacewalks during his five missions at the station, accumulating nearly 40 hours  in space outside the space station.

התוכנית: להגיע לשלוש שנים מצטברות בחלל. קונונקו לאחר שובו לכדור הארץ מהביקור הקודם בתחנת החלל, ב-2019 | צילום: NASA/Bill Ingalls
The goal: achieving three cumulative years in space. Kononenko upon his return to Earth from his previous visit to the space station in 2019. | Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls

A Small Step for the Environment

Last week, the United States space agency launched the PACE satellite for environmental research and monitoring of climate-related phenomena. The satellite, comparable in size to a commercial vehicle, is equipped with various cameras to observe phenomena such as cloud cover, atmospheric particle concentrations, air pollution levels, and plankton densities in the oceans.  Its goal is to enhance understanding of the complex interrelationships between oceans and the atmosphere, aiming to identify connections between airborne particle levels and ocean plankton abundance, or between air pollution and cloud formation, affecting Earth's warming and cooling.

The satellite was  launched by SpaceX on behalf of NASA. A Falcon 9 rocket carried it to an orbit at an altitude of 677 kilometers above Earth, where it is supposed to orbit the planet every 98 minutes in a sun-synchronous orbit. This orbit allows the satellite to pass over the same latitudes with the sun at the same angle during each orbit, facilitating consistent comparisons between photographs and measurements over time to discern trends. According to the plan, the mission is slated to operate for at least three years. In reality, the satellite carries an excess of fuel beyond the mission's minimum requirements, potentially extending its mission lifespan to up to ten years in the absence of malfunctions.

לנסות להבין טוב יותר את מנגנוני ההתחממות הגלובלית. לוויין PACE בחלל | הדמיה: NASA
Striving for a better understanding of the mechanisms behind global warming. PACE satellite in space. | Illustration: NASA


Translated with the assistance of ChatGTP. Revised, expanded and edited by the staff of the Davidson Institute of Science Education